CHASSAHOWITZKA — Ten young whooping cranes have taken their first step as they learn to migrate from Wisconsin to Florida.
Over the last several days, members of the so-called Class of 2011 have departed their rearing and training grounds at the White River Marsh Wildlife Area and made it to their first stop just 5 miles down the road.
The start of the 1,285-mile journey was not the picture postcard many envision with the ultralight-led migration, now in its 11th year. Only four of the 10 birds completed the trip in flight behind the ultralights.
The rest were crated and driven. But that is often how the migration begins for the inexperienced cranes, said Liz Condie, spokeswoman for Operation Migration, the organization in charge of the migration training.
The hope is that with the familiar home pen behind them, more of the birds will be willing to follow their adoptive parents, the ultralight aircraft, on future legs of the migration.
The rare whooping cranes will spend the next two to three months making flights to stopover points along the way, weather permitting, until they reach Florida. Half will be led to the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge in the Panhandle; the rest to the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge, straddling Hernando and Citrus counties.
This is the first year the birds were trained at White River Marsh. Previous classes learned to follow the ultralights at the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge. But officials became concerned that black flies there were driving cranes off their nests.
Since the birds return in the spring to the place they first fledged — and officials with the whooping crane reintroduction project wanted future generations of birds to nest away from Necedah — they needed a new habitat for training.
They chose White River Marsh, on 12,000 acres managed by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources southeast of Necedah. The site is about 40 minutes west of Oshkosh.
While news of the start of the migration excites those who track the birds each year, it also comes as officials in Louisiana announced that two whooping cranes in their new experimental flock were shot and killed Oct. 9 by two juveniles hunting from their truck in Jefferson Davis Parish, in the southwest part of the state.
The juveniles were apprehended earlier this week.
The two dead cranes were part of a flock of 10 birds released in a protected area in Vermillion Parish in February to begin a new nonmigratory flock, the first wild whooping cranes to inhabit the state since 1950.
Condie said the news was especially sad for those who have worked so hard to bring the species back from the brink of extinction. Over the past couple of years, seven captive-born and trained cranes have been shot.
"That's an enormous percentage of the world's population of whooping cranes,'' Condie said. "It just leaves you speechless.''
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434.